Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Considering the landscape of comics and how, yep, it’s all your fault

I don’t often read Brian Hibbs’s Tilting at Windmills column, even though it’s usually very informative, but his latest one takes stock of the retailing landscape and, as usual, predicts dire things. Hibbs has been tilting at this particular windmill for years, but while he writes things that seem very accurate and he always seeks out other opinions, how often can someone cry wolf about the state of the industry before we start ignoring him? If Hibbs has predicting the collapse of the direct market for over a decade and the direct market steadfastly refuses to collapse, do we really have to listen to him?

Well, sure. I mean, he has to be right one of these days! But even without joking, Hibbs’s columns are worth reading because they give a general sense of how retailers are faring in today’s comics market, and why they might have some complaints. Hibbs always points out that comics as an art form are doing fairly well, it’s just that the direct market’s over-reliance on Marvel and DC and, especially, the event comics from Marvel and DC, might not be healthy. He points out that in January, there are slightly over 1100 solicited periodical comic books. Almost 700 of those are variant covers. There are SEVENTEEN VARIANT COVERS for War of the Realms #1. That’s insane. Sorry, I don’t think I made my point well enough. THAT’S GODDAMNED MOTHERFUCKING SMEAR-SHIT-ON-THE-WALLS INSANE. Somebody – Quesada, perhaps, or someone else in charge – should be lined up against a wall and shot for making that decision. It’s a five-dollar comic, too, so there’s that.

Hibbs goes on to quote several well-known retailers who are suffering through anxiety right now, although curiously he doesn’t quote my retailer, who never seems to suffer any anxiety (he doesn’t like the stupid way he has to get comics from Diamond, but he does fine in the market, it seems). He points out that Marvel and DC don’t really have much incentive to change their crossover-and-variant-cover-and-#1-relaunch madness, and their parent companies often wonder why they’re even in the comics business. He offers up the usual things, like Marvel and DC squeezing their shrinking customer base so their profits look healthy but aren’t really, and while he doesn’t offer very good solutions, he feints that way a little bit. He implies what I’m about to state outright, so here it is:

This is all your fault.

Yes, you. You and me, I suppose, but I’m far less at fault than a lot of people. In fact, given what I know about some of the people here, we’re all probably less at fault than a lot of people. But it’s still our fault. I’ve written this before, but it’s still true: the only way to change the industry so it doesn’t suck is to make it so the companies have no choice but to change. If they can still make money using an antiquated system, they’re going to use an antiquated system. Such is the way of humans. Such is the way of big corporations. Forward-thinking humans and forward-thinking corporations are few and far between. DC and Marvel have absolutely no reason to change what they’re doing, and retailers won’t change anything. Despite the fact that Diamond has a monopoly and retailers are their true customers, ultimately it’s the readers who decide what gets published. If the retailers change their buying habits from Diamond because of what the readers tell them, then Marvel and DC will change their publishing habits based on what Diamond tells them. It’s just that simple.

You know what I’m talking about. Don’t settle. Stop whining about what is coming out and start buying what you like. Stop living in the past, maaaaaan! We all love Spider-Man and Batman and Superman and Dazzler (you know it’s true!), but that doesn’t mean we have to buy the comics starring those characters. I haven’t regularly bought a Spider-Man comic since J. Michael Straczynski’s run, and even then I dropped it before I could find out that Gwen Stacy banged Norman Osborn (which, still, ew). I have bought Batman comics haphazardly over the past twenty years, usually based on who was working on them. Chuck Austen drove me from my beloved X-Men comics in 2004 or so, after the weird-ass Nineties X-Men couldn’t (seriously, the Nineties X-Men weren’t terrible, just weird). I still buy DC and Marvel books occasionally, but I never buy every variant cover and I never stick to something that sucks just because my favorite character from childhood is starring in it. I know people who still do those things – they buy far more variant covers than they should, and they always buy Captain America or Iron Man or Wonder Woman even if the comics, you know, suck. They just love the character so much!!!!!! But, as I’ve noted before, Marvel and DC are counting on that. Why should they try to make better products when we keep buying the shitty ones?

I’m not saying anything all that revolutionary, I know. For most of the readers here, I’m probably preaching to the choir or preaching to no choir, because you don’t buy comics anymore (shame on you!!!!). I’m just saying that there are always options for stories “like the ones they had when you were a kid.” Just because the character might not be the same doesn’t mean you can’t get the same kind of story that makes you happy. Even from Marvel and DC, you can find comics that tweak your nostalgia while still telling a good story. If you can get past the horrible ideological brainwashing, Ms. Marvel is as charming a teenager story as the early Spider-Man comics were (it’s not drawn by Ditko and Romita, so it’s not as good, but it’s also not written in such a goofy rah-rah fashion, so there’s that). Squirrel Girl is one of the funniest comics Marvel has ever – that’s right, EVER – published. DC is doing all sorts of weird stuff with their Hanna-Barbera characters, and Mister Miracle was brilliant. The new Wonder Twins comic has a hilarious first issue, in which we learn of Bruce Wayne’s secret high school shame (and nickname!). Meanwhile, of course, there are dozens of independent comics that have that same sense of chaos that both Marvel and DC used to have before they became far too valuable as IPs for their parent corporations. Plus, if you buy those you won’t be feeding the twin beasts.

I know this isn’t news. Most people understand this. It does need to be pointed out occasionally, though, just like commentators on the state of the industry need to write a “sky-is-falling” post every few years. There are plenty of great comics out there, with writers giving us weird and cool takes on traditional tropes and artists doing mind-bending work. Some of it doesn’t even show up in Diamond, because the internet means creators can take their work directly to the people (that’s you). You have to be a bit more diligent, of course, and not simply buy the same book you’ve bought for years like some mindless zombie, but it can be done. And if the consumers do it, then maybe – just maybe – Marvel and DC will respond to the marketplace. We already know they respond to the public – the idiotic Bat-penis mess shows that, as does the fact that DC cancelled their Jesus comic after people who will never, ever read said Jesus comic or even see it on the shelves complained about it – so if the people who don’t read comics can have an impact, so can those who, you know, actually do read comics. It’s frustrating that so many people in the world will mindlessly follow something they once loved (I’m not just talking about comics, but anything pop-culture-related, and yes, I include myself in that too), because it’s so easy to consume pop culture that you might actually love rather than consume pop culture that you once loved but now don’t. It’s okay to move on! And if you do, just maybe DC and Marvel will produce comics that are worthy of your attention. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Don’t be part of the problem, everyone! No one wants that!


  1. tomfitz1

    Mr. Burgas,

    I have to agree, that all these variant covers are being overdone.
    1 or 2 variant covers should be enough, but doing 17 or even 50 covers is just plain ridiculous!
    I mean, who has the budget or $$ to try to buy all those covers these days at the prices of regular comics?

    I used to read Tilting at Windmills when it was showcased at CBR. I would have thought that that column would fit here at ATS, but NO such luck.

    Where’s it now?

  2. Peter

    I can only speak for myself, but I think that there are a few additional foreboding signs for comics (as an industry, not an artform) beyond just customers buying junk out of habit:

    Point A – this is true for all forms of media: we live in an age where (seemingly) everything that has ever been created is both easy to find and cheap. Sure, there are new movies coming out all the time, but why should I shell out $10 at the theatre every Friday when I can make a double feature of “Hot Fuzz” and “Bicycle Thieves” at my house for only a marginal cost? Lately, I’m finding the same is true of comics. I still spend most of my leisure money on comics, but it’s increasingly spent on reprints and translations which offer a lot of bang for the buck. I do like Squirrel Girl quite a bit, but do I like it enough to spend $48 on 12 issues when I could scratch that humor itch with a collection of Tales Designed to Thrizzle that I picked up for (no lie) $1.98 on Amazon and read a collection of Wally Wood’s work on MAD for free via Hoopla?

    Sub-point – In fact, I like Squirrel Girl enough to pay for it – but not for single issues. It’s cheaper to buy it (and most current comics) in trade paperbacks only a short time after the single issues came out. This, too, is similar to the situation with films, but the key difference is that when I pay to see a movie in the theater, I really am getting something (the big screen and great sound) that I couldn’t get from the cheaper option. To an extent, buying comics as they come out can offer the thrill of a cliffhanger and unique pleasures of serial storytelling that you don’t get as much in collected editions. Back in the day, I also used to enjoy reading reviews of comics as I bought them and speculating with the critics and fellow fans online about where the story was going. Now, there are fewer comics that tell satisfying monthly installments, pull off proper cliffhangers, and which are both popular and substantial enough to inspire regular criticism and online chatter.

    Point B – a lot of comics retailers and the Big Two publishers devote a lot of energy trying to sell collectibles rather than stories. In the short term, there are less lucrative business strategies, I guess. In the long term… nah. Part of this is the fans lapping it up, but I do think part of it falls on the retailers, too. When I visit a new place, I usually scope out a comic shop in the vicinity. Some are great, and feature “staff picks” of comics that are really good rather than really “hot” at the moment. The good shops tend to feature multiple copies of perennial trade paperbacks or comics which have recently been adapted for another medium, and, if they have back issues, keep them organized and reasonably-priced. In other words, these shops are selling to people like me who actually like to read. On the other hand, some stores price-gouge back-issue seekers, devote maximum shelf space to displaying multiple variant covers to the point of crowding out legitimately great titles with lower readership, and don’t have but a single copy of Watchmen. It baffles me that these places stay in business. They’re probably not converting any casual browsers.

    Point C – the corporate overlords at DC and Marvel seem to be keeping an even sharper eye on the bottom line of the comic divisions these days. While there is obviously a lot of great stuff out there beyond the Big Two, I feel like greater corporate scrutiny (particularly by folks who don’t even have publishing backgrounds!) is going to make it even harder for fans to bring about changes in the marketplace. Hopefully I’m wrong, but it seems possible if not likely that in five years, “voting with one’s dollars” won’t mean choosing North/Henderson Squirrel Girl over Spencer/Ottley Amazing Spider-Man; it will mean choosing between Spencer/Ottley Amazing Spider-Man over Judd Winick/Ed Benes Spectacular Spider-Man and Chuck Austen/Joe Bennett Web Of Spider-Man (no offense to Joe Bennett, who’s actually doing really fine work on the current Hulk title).

    Personally, I will (and do) try to support creators a little off the beaten path with my dollars. I applaud comic shops that try to steer their customers off the beaten path, as my local shop has often done (whether through sales or just prominently displaying something a little outre). Perhaps I’m just a little pessimistic as to how much I can change the direct market, when DC won’t even return my emails about printing special $10 editions of Morrison/Case Doom Patrol to go along with the TV show or giving Hickman and Williams III an Adam Strange book…

    1. Greg Burgas

      Peter: A lot to chew on, so thanks for that. I hardly buy anything in single issues, and nothing from DC and Marvel (I’ve decided to buy the first issues of things, but that’s just because I’m weird), so I agree with the trade paperback thing. I hope the Jessica Jones and Cloak and Dagger stuff that Marvel is doing is selling okay, because they’re doing digital single issues and then printing the trade. I would love it if that’s the model for the future.

      And yeah, the availability of stuff is a … not a problem, exactly, because it’s awesome that so much is available, but certainly something that needs to be taken into consideration.

      I used to like single issues, and one of the reasons was the discussions about them. You’re right, though – it’s hard to find popular comics that “everyone” is reading that offer a good single-issue experience. So why bother?

      One of the reasons I like my store is that, even though they’re focused on superhero comics for the most part, they have never given up on back issues, and the owner doesn’t gouge people on prices. He could be a bit more eclectic, but he knows his clientele, which doesn’t demand it of him too much. But he’s more than happy to order anything you want if you ask. I don’t know if he brings in a lot of new customers, but he does pretty well.

      I’m very curious about the next few years with regard to DC and Marvel. It should be fascinating, but I hope it’s not dire …

      DC, particularly, has never been all that good at synergy, while Marvel goes overboard, it seems. So it’s not surprising that DC isn’t currently publishing a Doom Patrol comic or trying to get old collections out in cheaper formats, while it’s also not surprising that Marvel has about 15 Captain Marvel books out in any given week. Neither route is pleasing to me! 🙂

    2. Louis Bright-Raven

      Peter wrote, “Perhaps I’m just a little pessimistic as to how much I can change the direct market, when DC won’t even return my emails about printing special $10 editions of Morrison/Case Doom Patrol to go along with the TV show or giving Hickman and Williams III an Adam Strange book…”

      Not to be nosy, but is there some way perchance you happen to know that Hickman and Williams III *want* to do an Adam Strange book, or is that just you playing Fantasy Draft Comics Publisher?

      I only ask because years ago when Greg did his Fantasy Draft version of the DC 52, I did the same thing, only I took it a wee step further and actually went and talked to the creators I wanted to work on the books online via social media and I found that sometimes what we want to see our preferred creators working on, they have no interest in doing.

  3. Louis Bright-Raven

    Greg: Nice essay. And thank you again for your recent daily postings on various indie books. A lot of effort went into that, I know.

    Tom: You can find Titling at Windmills at Heidi MacDonald’s comicbeat.com, or through Brian’s Facebook page (he tends to post the article or a link to the beat page there).

  4. Pol Rua

    This is what they did in the 90’s. This is what they’re doing today.

    In the 90’s, with the comics boom, a number of smaller publishers suddenly leapt to the fore and started making money, building a foundation for them to grow on.
    In order to combat this, the Big Two massively increased their number of titles in order to squeeze out these upstarts.
    Retailers have a limited amount of shelf-space, and have to pay the bills, so they tend to order what sells, so when you’re looking through Previews and you have one space left on the wall and have to decide whether to take a new indie title or a new Spider-Man or Batman title, nine times out of ten, you’ll go the latter route because you have to pay rent and wages and such.

    This is why, in the 90’s, there were so many Batman titles, and Spider-Man titles and Venom Titles. Because if the companies can make Batman take up 6 or 7 spaces on that finite wall shelf, instead of 2 (Batman & ‘Tec), that’s 4 or 5 spaces which won’t be filled with something from a smaller publisher.
    Marvel and DC know that they can take the hit, but Calibur or Eclipse or First Comics or Comico can’t. So all they need to do is take a financial hit for a year or so and survive on Disney and WB’s fat reserves of cash, and then they won’t need to keep it up because the competition will be gone.

    These days, companies like IDW, Image, Dark Horse, Boom etc… are cutting into their profits even more, so they’re doubling down. It worked before; it should work again.

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      Sad, but true. What’s more, DC and Marvel, via corporate parents, have greater access to other distribution channels, which helps squeeze others out in those avenues. Having worked for Barnes & Noble, you could see the focus was on the known quantity of the Big Two, with token offerings from others. Individual stores had to beef that up on their own, depending on their market. Amazon is the same.

      1. Louis Bright-Raven

        “And hey, Bob Harras is closely involved with both periods! Coincidence? I THINK NOT!”

        No, it’s definitely not coinkydink. And don’t get me started on that blanketey blank blank *BBBZZZZZTTTSQUWARK!* *Signal dead* LOL

  5. Andrew Collins

    I honestly don’t get the variant cover thing. The insides of the comic are the same, but people shell out $4 (or more!) for a cover. You know what I do when I see a comic with a variant cover I like? I find a picture of the cover online, right click, and save. And make it my desktop background. Owning multiple copies of the same comic for a cover is silly.

    As far as the Big Two, I’m down to just Simone’s Domino (now downsized to a mini-series) and Supergirl (which I bought for Maguire’s art but have stuck with because Andreyko’s story has been decent so far…) The dozens of crossover, Batman, and Deadpool titles just don’t interest me anymore.

    That said, supporting indie titles has had its own difficulties. Delays, and books just never coming out, have been frustrating to me as a fan and consumer. My favorite book in the last few years has been Amigo Comic’s Rogues. But the most recent mini-series has disappeared after the first issue was released months ago. Athena Voltaire from Action Lab has likewise disappeared, despite solicits for 6 issues out from the last one that came out. Dynamite, Avatar, Image, etc. They all suffer from the same problems to one degree or another. I know life happens sometimes, like in the case of the writer/artist of Heathen from Vault Comics, who had some health issues, but it all combines in the end to leave me jaded and increasingly uninterested in new comics…

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